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The EFF’s land policies: A leap in the dark

Professor Ben Cousins holds a DST/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

What land reform policies would the EFF pursue if it came to power? Other than the expropriation of white landowners without payment of compensation, what else does the party of “economic freedom” propose? Unfortunately, it appears that what is on offer is little different from the ANC’s current set of weak, ineffective and (in practice) elite-oriented policies.

The threadbare nature of EFF thinking on land is on display in its 2014 and 2016 election manifestos. These are unimaginative, detached from the harsh realities facing people in the countryside, and in many instances simply not credible. One example is the 2014 statement that EFF custodianship will lead to “equal redistribution of all land amongst all people”. A second is in the 2016 manifesto: “the EFF People’s Municipality will provide bulk irrigation services to all agricultural land”, which is simply not possible given our climate and constrained supply of water.

The poor quality of the EFF’s land policies is also starkly revealed in Lubabalo Ntsholo’s reply of 20 June 2016 to my article on the need for fresh thinking on land reform. Ntsholo misrepresents most my arguments and implies that I am guilty of proposing a neo-liberal narrative and of “race denialism”. He argues that a “narrow economic lens” on land reform is inadequate, and that the primary issue is “swift, radical” land redistribution from whites to blacks.

Most of us would probably agree that the history of race-based dispossession in South Africa is a necessary starting point, since it is a key determinant of the contemporary land question. The pain felt by black South Africans in relation to this history is palpable and indeed should not be “delegitimised”. However, agreeing that race is central is not the same as agreeing that it is the only (or the most important) factor to take account of in designing land policies.

If the nature of the South African economy in general, and of the agricultural economy in particular, cannot be understood without consideration of racial oppression, then it is equally true to say that racial inequality cannot be understood apart from the class dynamics of capitalism. These two dynamics are inextricably intertwined, and in South Africa tend to “co-produce” each other. For most black South Africans, race and class location taken together ensure that they are at the bottom of the social pile. For most women, an added disadvantage is unequal gendered relations – the notorious “triple burden”.

But are race and class equally determining of the structure of inequality? Research reveals that inequality along class lines has deepened among the black population since the end of apartheid, and it is clear that class identity (along with generation) is rapidly becoming an important factor in social and political life. This is partly what explains increasing support for the DA among middle-class blacks and support for the EFF among the poor and the youth in particular.

As Frantz Fanon pointed out in The Wretched of the Earth, the key beneficiaries of national liberation struggles are often not “the people”, but the national bourgeoisie, which comes to power on the back of radical populist ideologies. In the absence of a clear class agenda and practical policies to give effect to them, would the EFF not take us down the same path as the ANC?

Ntsholo questions my proposal that the top 20% of commercial farming enterprises, which produce 70%-80% of agricultural value, be left alone for two decades, to provide stability in the food economy while radical agrarian reform proceeds around it. In the paper that my short piece was based on, I explain that extreme levels of concentration such as this are the result of the inherent tendency of capital to become centralised and concentrated over time. Liberalisation and deregulation of the South African economy initiated by the old regime from the late 1980s, and continued by the ANC government after 1994, has exacerbated these tendencies.

The other 80% of commercial producers are relatively unproductive, but in fact often run efficient operations within their resource endowments. Some are constrained by land quality and low or uncertain rainfall, but not all. There is much good land, some with irrigation water, which could be redistributed to black farmers. Market-oriented smallholders would stand a better chance of succeeding on this land than the majority of the rural poor, who desire jobs rather than farms.

My suggestion that the really large producers not be targeted for redistribution for a period of time is a pragmatic policy suggestion. It is akin to Julius Malema’s recent statement that the EFF will seek to secure the services of retired white engineers to improve services in municipalities that it wins in the upcoming elections.

My proposal recognises the practical reality that in the short to medium term there will be insufficient numbers of black farmers to run the highly capitalised businesses that dominate the food system at present. It also takes into account the vulnerability of the urban poor to rising food prices.

On property rights, Ntsholo mischaracterises me as an advocate of private property and an uncritical supporter of the National Development Plan. In fact, I have long argued that individual titling is not a silver bullet solution to tenure insecurity, and that South African land reform needs to look at alternative options such as legal recognition of “social tenures”.

These include tenure systems derived from customary norms, communal property associations and hybrid systems that combine social oversight with strong individual rights. Individual leasehold tenure has some advantages too. However, in my view the beneficiaries of land redistribution should be offered a range of options, including individual titles.

One key issue in tenure reform at present is the powers of chiefs over communal land. The ANC under President Zuma is intent on transferring such land into the private ownership of traditional councils. Government will support councils to strike business deals with private investors, similar to those agreed with mining companies operating on communal land. This is a recipe for dispossession and corruption on a large scale. What is the EFF stance on these issues? This is unclear. Why is the party silent on these critically important questions?

All land tenure systems must be overseen and supported by government, albeit in different ways. A prerequisite for effective land reform in general is a state apparatus with the capacity to undertake complex tasks in the interests of society at large, and the poor in particular, as well as a strong system of checks and balances that prevents corruption and abuse. Under the ANC, state capacity has deteriorated badly. Would things go better under the EFF? Would nationalised land be fairly allocated and administered? Would ordinary rural residents benefit from tenure reform, or would chiefs?

The sketchy quality of the EFF’s proposals for land reform, together with its neglect of agrarian reform and its silence on the land rights of people in communal areas, leads one to doubt that they would be an improvement on the ruling party. DM

Professor Ben Cousins holds a DST/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.


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